Back to On the Road with John Tarleton

A16 Activists Rally Against Military Aid to Colombia

by John Tarleton
April 12, 2000

WASHINGTON—The US relationship with Colombia came under fire from Mobilization for Global Justice activists Tuesday as Colombian President Andres Pastrana arrived in Washington to lobby for a vast new program of military assistance.

"We're here today to say no to Pastrana, no to the Colombian military and no to the US government for even thinking of giving this aid to Colombia" said Orin Lingelle of ACERCA (Action for Community and Ecology in the Regions of Central America) at a rally of 150 or so people in front of the Colombian ambassador's residence.

Small but spirited, the protest was unusually well-covered by local, national and international media that were eager to catch an early glimpse of the protesters who are going to descend upon this city. A couple of drummers pounded away on vegan jimbays and there were chants ("No more arms./No more oil./No more blood on U'wa soil!") on behalf of the U'wa indigenous people. Later, the crowd would march down to K Street and haunt the lunch hour of the Suits who work for Fidelity Investment, which has a major stake in Colombia's status quo.

Blood Money

Colombia is trapped in a catastrophic 36-year civil war that features the government and rightist paramilitaries on one side and two leftist rebel groups on the other. More than 200,000 people have died in the conflict, most of them non-combatants. Colombia's armed forces have one of the worst human rights records in Latin America and recently have been losing ground to rebel forces. The clinton Administration has responded by offering $1.7 billion in military aid. Interestingly enough, none of the protesters mentioned the word "Vietnam".

Colombia has followed the kind of neoliberal orthodoxy prescribed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And, protesters were quick to draw the connection between corporate interests and US foreign policy.

The Plight of the U'wa

Occidental Petroleum gained a concession in 1993 that allows it to drill for an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of oil that lay beneath the cloudforest homeland of the U'wa people. Fidelity Investment, the world's largest mutual fund, is one of Occidental's largest shareholders. United Technologies and Textron are slated to sell $452 million worth of Blackhawk and Huey attack helicopters in the proposed military aid package. Monsanto provides pesticides and genetically-engineered fungicides for waging war against coca growers, many of whom are poor farmers who took up the illegal crop after world coffee prices plummeted in the late '80s.

The plight of the U'wa is especially compelling. They have lived in harmony with their cloudforest environment for thousands of years. They stubbornly cling to the belief that the Earth is sacred and that all life is interconnected. And, they have vowed to commit mass suicide if their land is destroyed by Occidental. Presently, several hundred U'wa and their families are blockading oil wells and are in a tense stand-off with the Colombian military.

Rachael Gatwood, 17, of Silver Spring, Maryland first heard about the U'wa a couple of months ago when she received an e-mail from the Rainforest Action Network. And, she felt it was important to make a stand on their behalf.

"I think we could learn alot from them, about their relationship to the Earth and to each other," Gatwood said.

"We Are going to Put Our Hearts Together"

Oronto Douglas, deputy director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria, came to the protest to express his support for the U'wa. Douglas is a native of the Niger Delta, which has been under similar assault from Shell Oil. Hundreds of activists have been killed by the Nigerian military and the Niger Delta has been badly polluted.

"I fear that the same thing is going to happen to the U'wa and is already happening now," Douglas said. "I fear that the torture of culture that has been perpetrated by the transnational corporations is taking firm root. They are going to kill. They are going to maim. They are going to destroy every life that is there"

Douglas encouraged people to make the most of the coming week.

"We have to stand up against environmental injustice," he said. "We are going to join hands globally. We are going to put our hearts together. We are going to demand justice, not just for the poorest but for generations unborn. This is our chance. We must not let it slip."